As folks head into the AAA, a few thoughts about anthropology in the military –Part 1

Yes, I know. I rant about the AAA and yet I still download the PDF of the conference program. I wonder why we all do things like that? It’s not like I’m looking to change the stance of the AAA or the stance of people that get hysterical over anthropologists working in the military or intel communities. To me, those are all done deals, my mind is not going to change (at least not by the arguments presented so far) and I am not going to change someone else’s. Everyone may as well go to their separate corners and be done with it. But yet I still feel the need to raise a voice from time to time. Not to change peoples’ minds, but perhaps to let other people (students?) know that anthropology can be much more than what (I believe) a small group of people have been trying to limit it to. Political ideology and political correctness are not substitutes for doing the work and analysis in order to get to the clearest answers and insights… it’s not about hunting for a way to prove the other person right or wrong, or at least it shouldn’t be. Maybe you do harbor a secret desire to work for the CIA or NSA. Sure, given the oppressive political environment some anthropologists want to create, you may not want to advertise that fact, but know that there are others out there like you but they might not have the title “anthropologist.” It’s not news that I am ethically fine with people that have anthropology training working in all areas of the military and intel communities, not just contributing to the stabilization and community building kind of work that people we partner with are engaged in. Hell, I am fine if people want to use their skills to move forward the political agenda they are most passionate about. But use your skills and don’t just lay down in front of the agenda laid out for you. How many anthropologists that were against the invasion of Iraq actually used their skills, expertise and training as anthropologists to prevent or shorten the escapade? Lets count the hands up… anyone, anyone? Sorry, scribbling a poster to hold up as an anonymous face at a rally is not using your advanced training to change the direction of government and neither is a signed statement of protest. Use your skills to do fieldwork, use the fieldwork to generate insights, us those insight to create plans of action and recommendations. The reason why corporations and the military have been working with anthropologists for years is that they get value from the anthropologists doing what they are trained to do. Why is it when anthro’s decide to protest something they don’t bother doing any of that same work to further their own agendas? Creating real change requires doing real work.

Students: There is good and honorable work out there in non-profits, political groups, all levels of national, state and local governments, military, corporations, and more, no matter what your convictions but rarely is it called anthropology and would benefit greatly from the mind set of an anthropologist. Anthropologists have a lot of opportunities for a seat at these tables, they just have to be willing to get off the high horse and take it.

5 thoughts on “As folks head into the AAA, a few thoughts about anthropology in the military –Part 1

  1. I like Lt. Col Nagl’s advice to anthro’s embedded with the military – “Be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill”

    Mr Dawson, i could not disagree with your ‘rant’ more.

    These days they seem to let anyone write their opinions on the internet. What is the world coming too

  2. Yes Dylan I admit, the internet would be much easier to navigate were it not for the whole “freedom of speech” deal. But despite what I can only assume is your preference for state or politically controlled media, the internet has so far managed to hold off regulation and allow anyone and everyone to have a voice that takes the time to write.

  3. I have never seen any such quote from John Nagl to anthro’s embedded with the military. Though he has used it in other contexts. If you have a source for it, I would be eager to see it. But its pretty doubtful it exists.

  4. Dylan:
    I don’t know if Col. Nagl told HTS that they “Be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill,” but, this point to be a self-evident truism for anyone going into Iraq with the US Army, or any of the other military forces in the region. After all, killing is one of the things that armies do, whether or not they have an anthropologist along. Certainly this is something that the Iraqi people are well aware of.

    For that matter, it seems to me that Col. Nagl’s advice applies to a whole range of people who go into potentially lethal situations carrying arms. Besides the military, this applies to police officers in particular. But, it can also be extended to a wide range of professions that carry arms (e.g. park rangers, the Coast Guard), those who manufacture potentially lethal products (e.g. pesticides, guns, and automobiles), and provide potentially lethal services as doctors and nurses do. I guess at an extreme, Col. Nagl’s advice can even apply to those of us who daily get behind a wheel of that most lethal instrument in modern society, the automobile. Admittedly, the army is at one extreme in the expectation that it will kill, but it is hardly unique.

    So my question for you is, so what if Col. Nagl did say this to HTS? How do such statements logically mean that anthropology (and not other disciplines) need to excommunicate those who work for the army? And even if AAA could excommunicate anthropologists who worked for HTS, how would this change the situation in Iraq for the better? Given the cross-cultural catastrophe that has emerged in Iraq I can’t imagine why anthropologists should stay on the sidelines.


  5. “I like Lt. Col Nagl’s advice to anthro’s embedded with the military – “Be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill””

    That was a quote from a Maj. General of the Marines talking to his men before going out on patrols, and it was, “Be polite, be professional, and have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” That’s just good advice to an infantry marine.

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